The Knox School of Santa Barbara
The '7' Multipotentialite Super Powers
Here's why so many innovators throughout history have been multipotentialites.
Specialists do certain things well. They are excellent craftsmen, they have a deep knowledge of their chosen profession, they’re focused and detail oriented.
Multipotentialites are skilled in varying degrees depending on the passion. For example, after twelve years of classical violin training, I’m a pretty solid violinist. Compare that to the three years I spent in law school. It’s been a few years since graduating and I could probably recall the essential elements of a contract, but not much more.
The value of skill
The dominant story around career and calling tells us that skill is what’s valuable in the marketplace, and that we should therefore hone a skill (specialize), and then perform this skill over and over again in exchange for a paycheck.
Sure, this is an over-simplistic way of looking at employment, but there’s truth to it. It’s the model that came out of the industrial revolution, back when it made sense for each person to be a cog in the system and do one thing well because that’s how our industry flourished.
Are there qualities more valuable than skill?
Skill is where the conversation usually ends. But I would argue that there are certain qualities more valuable than being “really good” at something.
Multipotentialites have a number of often underestimated superpowers that go beyond skill. These qualities are the reason that so many innovators throughout history happen to have been oriented toward multiple disciplines.
They predispose us to innovation.
1. Contextual thinking
Multipotentialites are able to see the broader implications of a problem, and can therefore make smarter, more informed decisions.
When I was in law school, I took a course on Intellectual Property. As someone who used to burn CDs of her latest songs and mail them to the Library of Congress when she was seventeen, I had a tangible understanding of what Copyright meant. Similarly, my experiences making films often had me bumping up against copyright law in different, often frustrating ways.
My background in the arts meant that I didn’t just see Copyright through the lens of law, but I was able to appreciate the affect that it had on different groups. Being able to understand issues from many perspectives enhances empathy and understanding, and leads to more well thought out decisions.
2. Translating between modes of thought
A background of multidisciplinary exploration means that multipotentialites are able to “speak the language” of people in different fields. The ability to shift between modes of thought allows us to translate between groups, help them understand each other, and work with big teams.
I once couch surfed with a guy who programs supercomputers for some of the biggest tech companies in the world. He literally told me that a specialist couldn’t do his job. As the project leader, he needs to be able to understand how the programmers, designers, businesses, and users all think, so that he can help them communicate with each other and bring the greater vision to life.
In her book, Refuse to Choose, Barbara Sher uses the example of the orchestra conductor. A conductor must know how to speak the language of the violinists, so that he can tell them which part of the bow to use during certain passages where he wants particular dynamics and intensity. At the same time, the conductor must know how to speak the language of the timpani players, which means thinking in terms of texture and rhythm. He needs to be able to zoom in to communicate with each individual part, and zoom back out to make sure that no voice overpowers the others, and that the instruments blend together nicely.
3. Wearing many hats
Multipotentialites know how to do many things well, which means that we rarely have to seek outside help (we may want to, but rarely do we have to). So while I may not have enough legal knowledge to be a lawyer, I do have enough skill for it to be a real asset in my business.
Our unique and varied skill-set can also make us indispensable to an organization. One summer I worked at an advertising agency in New York. I was initially hired as a web design intern, but once they realized what vast skills I had, they began giving me a range of tasks. I found myself working with the in-house lawyer to research city regulations related to billboards, editing video campaigns, and cutting together panoramic photos. I did all of this in addition to my web design work. I think they were pretty sad when I left. I would have been hard to replace.
4. Fast skill acquisition
Multipotentialites are so accustomed to diving into new disciplines and acquiring knowledge, that we become skilled at the process of learning. The more experience you have being a beginner, the faster “getting good” becomes.
The experience of tackling many subjects also means that we are less intimidated when facing new problems. We’ve got the confidence from years of picking things up to know that we can figure it out. Also, the truth is that multipotentialites rarely start from scratch. Most skills are transferable, and we often build off of past knowledge.
Multipotentialites are also fiercely passionate about their pursuits, almost to the point of obsession. This kind of passion fuels self-learning. It means that we devour information and can reach a high level of proficiency fast.
5. Impact / inspiration
Being passionate doesn’t just lead to fast skill acquisition. The enthusiasm that multipotentialites have for their interests makes them excellent leaders that other people want to band around. Knowledge is important, but I would argue that enthusiasm is more valuable since it reaches people on an emotional level.
Multipotentialites are schemers. We love coming up with new ideas and bringing projects to life. When I was a kid, I was constantly inventing awesome projects. There were plays, gymnastic shows, a kids news program, fortune telling and origami in the park, punk bands, websites, short films, and clubs. This pattern has continued throughout my life. Often when I look around and feel displeased with the existing options, I create my own. Multipotentialites are constantly looking to invent better, more fun ways of doing things.
7. Idea synthesis
Probably the coolest multipotentialite super power is the ability to combine disparate fields and create something entirely new at the intersection.
I would define innovation as: taking knowledge in one area and applying it to solve a problem in an entirely unrelated field. The intersections are where new ideas are born. New ideas don’t come from text books. With so many fields to draw from, multipotentialites have a lot of potential intersections to explore.
Tapping into your super powers
As a multipotentialite, you are naturally inclined toward the seven super powers mentioned above. However, some of us are more practiced in certain areas than others.
If you’ve been denying your multipotentiality and trying to specialize (because that’s what the culture told you to do), you might be a little rusty. Don’t worry. All of these abilities can be brought out through practice. As you embrace your multipotentialite nature, it will become easier to harness your super powe